Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Jonathan Edwards was born on October 5, 1703. The son of Timothy Edwards, a Congregationalist pastor in East Windsor, Connecticut; and of Esther Stoddard, who’s father Solomon Stoddard was the pastor of the church of Northampton, Massachusetts, and the most powerful ecclesiastical figure in Western New England. From both sides of his family, Jonathan Edwards inherited a distrust of what was going on in Boston and at Harvard.

His grandfather Stoddard had decided as early as 1660 that restricted Church membership only to those who could make a public confession of receiving God’s grace was a recipe for marginalizing the Church’s impact on society. Only a few in Northampton would ever come forward with claims so staggering, Stoddard argued. The rest will drift off to the sidelines of the Church, where the opportunity to experience that grace might never happen.

Stoddard not only threw down the barriers the first generation of Puritans in New England had put in place, but threw even the half-way covenant which had been invented as a partial membership system to the winds, and invited every member of the town to Baptism and communion. As for Harvard, the churches and the settlements of the Connecticut River Valley had long suspicions about the weak theological leaders that governed intellectual affairs in Cambridge. That is why Connecticut Puritans decided to found their own college in 1701: Yale.


The young Edwards, just under the age of 13, was sent to Yale, even though the college had not yet even worked out a permanent location. It finally settled in New Haven. His education rested on the English and Dutch protestant scholastics. But whether anyone was particularly noticing it or not, Yale’s rector, Timothy Cutler, also assigned William Brattle’s Cartesian New Logic to the students, as well as the study of John Locke and Sir Isaac Newton. Edwards applied himself to these innovations in the curriculum reluctantly. Not because he lacked a taste for philosophy, but because he greatly preferred the old logic. Yet that did not prevented him from arising to the top of his class intellectually. When he graduated from Yale, the choice for giving the valedictory fell to Edwards.

Despite his loyalty to the “old logic”, Edwards could not keep his curiosity from wandering to the new philosophy. By the time he graduated, he began dabbling in two scientific essays, on insects and on spiders. He began keeping commonplace books with his own speculations on epistemology and natural science. Once outside of Yale, he briefly server as pastor to a small congregation in New York City, but in June 1724, he accepted an invitation from Yale to return as a tutor. He spent the next three years working out more deeply his explorations into epistemology, pursuing a more clear and immediate view of God, concerning his operation with matter and bodies. And rather than embracing an outright naturalism (that all substance is material), or dualism (that material and spiritual substances coexist), Edwards was gradually pulled to an immaterialism similar to that of Bishop Berkeley; in which that which is truly the substance of all bodies is the infinite, exact, precise and perfectly stable idea in God’s mind.

As Pastor of Northampton

There was, however, little professional future for junior tutors at Yale. In November 1726, the Northampton church called Edwards to become his grandfather’s Stoddart assistant pastor. Edwards was ordained by the Northampton church on February 1727, and in 1729, after his grandfather’s death, Edwards became pastor of the town. The notations in his philosophical notebooks trailed off, as the demands of a busy pastor were over him. But from time to time they surfaced again in Edwards’ sermons, where it became clear that for Edwards, immaterialism had become an effective weapon for the defense of traditional Calvinism. Invited in 1731 to deliver a public lecture at Boston, Edwards warned against the tendency of man to depend on his own power and goodness, which was good Calvinist theology. The reasoning behind this is strongly influenced by the new philosophical immaterialism: God acts in immaterialist fashion as an extrinsic occasional agent on the mind. Whatever ideas we have are the products not of sensation, nor of the mind as a machine, but of the direct action of God.

Echoing the European Awakeners, Edwards was careful not to make this action simply a matter of God presenting ideas directly to the mind and leaving the mind to do with it what it pleased. God’s action works not upon the reason or ratiocination, but upon a sense of the heart, which immediately perceives a beauty, a divine and transcendent glory in God. Edwards thus made immaterialist philosophy serve the interest of Calvinist piety.

The Awakenings

The promotion of piety became Edwards’ particular burden in the 1730’s. Specially when in 1734 a very remarkable blessing of heaven fell on Northampton. In the Puritan path, the experience of religious conversion had been largely a matter of individual spiritual renewal, under the careful direction of pastors and family elders. The novelty introduced by the Awakeners of the 18th century was to turn the experience of grace into a communal experience, a group revival of religion that could involve whole towns, sometimes entire regions. Solomon Stoddart, with his eye always on the improvement of his parish, had welcomed several small revivals like these in Northampton; and so had Edwards’ father, Timothy Edwards, in their home parish in East Windsor. But this revival, which occurred in 1735, saw, as Edwards described it, more than three hundred souls saved and brought home to Christ in his town.

Not only the numbers, but the character of the revival was, as Edwards said, unprecedented. It involved not only males and females alike, but children as young as four years old. An outburst of enthusiasm and worship, some, he said, weeping with sorrow and distress, others with joy and love, other with pity and concern for the souls of their neighbors. Edwards struggled both to defend and analyze this eruption in “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God”, which was published in England in 1737.

Edwards had hardly digested the lessons of the 1734 revival before a second wave of awakenings came to Northampton in 1740, on the shoulders of the celebrated English preacher George Whitefield. Whitefield had emerged as one of the princes of the European Awakeners. A preacher of fabulous talent, dramatic intensity and superb self-confidence. In 1737, he dedicated himself to establishing an orphanage in the new American colony of Georgia, and undertook a fundraising-preaching tour of the colonies, which quickly turned into a riot of awakenings. What had been mere awakenings now became the Great Awakening in British North America. Whitefield came to Northampton to preach and to recognize Edwards as a fellow laborer. The outbreak of revivals consumed not only Edwards’ Northampton, but much of Western New England.

Whifield’s preaching also generated angry criticism from both the Boston elite, who spurned revivals as raw enthusiasm; and from nervous country persons who feared the destabilizing effect of mass revivals on the peace of their folks. By 1742, the New England clergy had become polarized into an old-like faction, which condemned the revivals; and a new-like faction which encouraged them and which found in Edwards its principal theorist of revivals and religious experience.

Edwards not only participated fully as a preacher in promoting revivals, but he also published three important defenses of “revivalism”: “Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God”, “Some thoughts concerning the present revival in New England”, and “A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections”. Of all the three, the religious affections was Edwards’ most profound effort, laying out in 12 signs, as he put it, the distinction between true and false religion, and the right place of the emotions or affections (to avoid the pejorative term passions) in religious experience. Both, “Some thoughts concerning the present revival” and “The religious affections”, however, show signs of stress in Edwards, since the aftermath of the Greak Awakening in Northampton proved to be a severe disappointment for Edwards, as many of the awakened gradually subsided into religious indifference.

In 1744, in an ill-considered effort to stimulate genuine conversions, Edwards reimposed the test of a public confession of grace on new members of the Church, which had been abandoned by Solomon Stoddart. The Northampton Church turned with resentment on Edwards. In 1750, Edwards was forced to resign.

The Mission and the Later Philosophical Works

Thrown upon the wide ocean of the world, as he put it, Edwards accepted the offer of the Boston commissioners of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England to take charge of the Indian mission at Stockbridge, Massachusetts, 60 miles West of Northampton. He was an indifferent missionary, but the mission worked giving time to turn back to his philosophical notebooks. Between 1751 and 1757, Edwards produced two manuscript dissertations, as he called them, on ontology and ethics. The first of them, concerning the end for which God created the world; and the other on the nature of true virtue. These, plus two major treatises on Freedom of the Will, in 1754, and Original Sin in 1758.

Freedom of the Will was the greatest piece of philosophical speculation pined by an American in the 18th century, and the only one which managed to command any serious European readership. But its real intent, as in much of Edwards’ work, was not so much to articulate philosophy or embrace the Enlightenment, but rather to justify in the most enlightened vocabulary and method available the ways of God to man. Edwards had noticed how the threat of Hobbes and his bleak materialism had frightened the religious thinkers in the Enlightenment. He also noticed how Hobbes’ denial of free will caused panic even among Calvinists, who began defending human free will. This affirmation of free will is contradictory to Calvinism’s teaching that God, and not human free will, determines the outcome of all events.

Calvinists, and for that matter anyone who believes in God as more than a well-intentioned mumbler, could not run away from the fact that a God who is really God determines everything. Edwards’ great achievement was to try to demonstrate, in one logical sweep after another, how God’s determination of the will does not deprive anyone of freedom, much less force anyone over the cliff into materialism. And it was a logical sweep.

Defenses of Calvinist theology before the Great Awakening had stiffen unimaginatively into the style and rhetoric of the catechism, with certain theological axioms laid out scholastic-style, and then adorned with scriptural proof texts as if all that was needed to halt the Enlightenment’s incoming tide was a biblical quotation.

What has continuously surprised readers of Edward’s Freedom of the Will was how very unlike the catechism model his writing was. Freedom of the Will reads much more like a treatise on psychology than like an apology for Calvinism. This was because the Enlightenment was simultaneously Jonathan Edwards’ friend and enemy. His serene confidence in traditional Calvinism made him hostile to the Enlightenment’s pretensions to base human behavior on reason and nature; and it made him receptive to the notion that true spiritual harmony was possible only by overcoming the superficial allure of reason and nature. Yet, he believed just as firmly, that reason, once it was sanctified by conversion of the heart, was an instrument to be well used in examining nature. Edwards’ intellectual life was rooted in one of the Enlightenment’s principal questions about epistemology.

People who try to stay astride of conflicting intellectual movements, with one foot in one camp and one foot on another, or one foot in one answer and one foot in another; are usually destroyed by the conflict between the two. Edwards is that rare exception, who instead, turns conflicts into a creative intellectual fusion, in this case, of Enlightenment and piety. In so doing, Edwards fashioned a new Evangelical form of piety, a form which would become one of the two great long-term forces in the history of American ideas.